A surprisingly good story, gorgeous graphics and brutal gameplay make this a comeback to remember.
By Murray Hibble on October 7, 2013 at 1:37 pm
If you’ve not heard of Flying Wild Hog, then it’s my pleasure to make the introduction. Based in Warsaw, Poland, they made one of my favourite shooters of all time back in 2011, the dystopian Hard Reset. With their ‘Road Hog’ engine, this small team made a surprisingly amazing game and then, in true developer good-guy style, re-released an overhauled edition to buyers as a free ‘extended version’ a year later.
Backing the Hog team are Devolver Digital, who are something of a ‘cult’ publisher judging by their portfolio on Steam, and they’re not afraid show it. Throughout Shadow Warrior you’ll find arcade cabinets showing low-rez gifs of their other titles; titles like Serious Sam, Hotline Miami and Hard Reset. So what happens when a capable developer and a hip publisher try to bring a much-loved spritely shooter from the 90s back to life? Well, to put it simply, you get Wang. You get a lot of Wang.
Shadow Warrior‘s protagonist is a wise-cracking master of the blade who doesn’t repeat himself even once throughout the game’s considerable length (heyyyy). Lo Wang starts the game with two million dollars in a briefcase and a simple directive: purchase the Nobitsuru Kage, a legendary katana, for his employer Mr Ziller. What happens next involves an invasion of demons from the Shadow Realm, an over-arching story of a God’s love lost and enough bloody sword-fighting to make Tarantino’s Kill Bill look like a children’s puppet show.
Along the way, Wang picks up a demonic friend who travels through the game as a mask attached to his knee. Hoji the demon is as wry as Wang and between them there’s some hilarious repartee throughout and often mid-battle. Better still, despite Poland being very far from Japan, the voice-acting and writing is uniformly superb which crafts these two into easily likeable characters. Hoji is mainly there for the many expository cut-scenes however and isn’t utilised in-game like, say, Johnson from the equally bizarre grindhouse game Shadows of the Damned, but with the weapons you’ll get hold of, he really isn’t needed.
An old-school shooter is typified, to me, by endless hordes of enemies and frenzied mouse and keyboard gymnastics. That someone can come along years after the genre has gone stale and innovate it back to life is simply astounding. Rather than facing down hordes of bad guys with just a set of projectile weapons (as with Serious Sam and Painkiller) the katana is your primary weapon and it functions just like one of the aforementioned shooters but is approximately a thousand times more awesome. You’ll lop limbs from torsos, heads from necks and cleave bodies in twain as you frantically manage seemingly endless hordes of beastly fodder.
What makes the katana your preferred weapon are the special attacks you can unlock as you progress through the game. Each of these is charged by double-tapping one of your movement keys then pressing and holding your left mouse button. There’s powerful thrusts, spinning attacks and more, and while you’re at it, why not hit ‘Q’ to throw an unlimited number of shurikens? Double-tap the direction keys again and hold your right mouse button and you’ll activate powers like force-fields and shockwaves. The constant explosions, spattered viscera and flying limbs make every battle hectically rewarding. You can also swap out the basic katana for a sweet light-sabre blade or, for Saints Row IV pre-order-ers, the ‘Penetrator’ (essentially, a Wang-wielded giant purple rubber wang).
And oh, such beasts you are given to exert yourself upon. As expected, things start very simple with hordes of basic melee and ranged enemies. As you progress, you’ll come across muscled warbeasts, 10-feet tall necromancers and heavily armoured behemoths. This might sound typical but the creature designs are in thematic harmony with the backdrops and the various layering of enemy types creates frantic battles and memorable explosions of colour. Be prepared, too, for some genuinely formidable match-ups in the closing chapters.
Rather than letting you rely on your one favourite power-attack, the player is cleverly rewarded for dispatching a group of enemies using as many different attacks and weapons as possible. Initially, this is a fun mechanic that forces you to innovate, until you realise that with each power attack, more and more enemies are becoming enraged where they’ll turn red and pose a greater threat, forcing you to choose between cooking off your powers or just hacking and shooting everything to death. Fortunately, you’ll have limitless access to healing by double-tapping D and holding the RMB, and this isn’t a cheap way out either as you’ll need to keep moving to stay alive and continue to attack with your other hand.
Aside from your trusty sword, you will have your everyday weapons like pistols, machine guns and rocket launchers as well as slightly more deranged objects like severed demon heads and eviscerated hearts. Weapons can all be levelled up using the money you can pick up just about everywhere, and very soon you’ll be guiding rockets, wielding double-uzis and unleashing all manner of weaponised hell. When used alongside the reward-mechanic, the player is encouraged to use all weapons in all battles which is both an enjoyable challenge and a hell of a sight.
Whether you’re conscious of it or not, there’s a language to great level-design both in directing the players movement but also in creating secret areas, and it’s a tongue that Flying Wild Hog are fluent in. Small landscape hints abound and following your nose can lead to some very satisfying rewards; particularly those secret areas that are presented in stark 32-bit graphics. The hiding of secrets and collectibles isn’t something that’s done well any more, nor is it done with so much loving effort — some of the secrets in Shadow Warrior are so clever and so well hidden that they would represent many extra hours in the design process, a heavy cost for such a small team.
Each of the settings across the 17 chapters offer large sprawls with enough corridors, arenas, interactive objects and vistas to ensure you never get bored. Not only are they well designed but every level looks beautiful thanks to the Road Hog engine. From cherry blossom gardens and narrow village streets, to massive shipyards and mountain-top temples, the attention to detail is striking. Everything your eye sees is brightly coloured and richly dressed and even areas that you will only pass through are meticulously detailed and textured. The Roadhog engine is a mighty piece of work with solid framerates on even mid-range machines, although some slowdowns should be expected when the the action really kicks up a particle-storm.
The love of detail that Flying Wild Hog displays can even be found in the menu systems. You can level Lo Wang up in three ways; improving your weaponry with money, growing your skills with Karma and adding new powers with Ki crystals. The weaponry page is a dull grey backed by the Ziller corporate logo, the powers page shows a meditative Lo Wang surrounded by candles, and the skills page is made of parchment and inked Eastern-imagery that slowly colours in as you progress.
One area of the game that needed a little more attention is the boss fights, and unfortunately these are near carbon-copies of the battles in Hard Reset. Sure, the gargantuan bosses look spectacular against the backdrop of the shadow realm, but it’s the same thing each time; shoot the glowing parts of their armour to reveal crystals, then hammer the crystals until they go down. With an endless supply of ammunition raining down around you, these are just exercises in patience as you dodge, heal and shoot for a good fifteen minutes each time.
Something I wouldn’t have expected from any other developer in a game like this is — yes, really — a compelling story. Initially you’re fed a few tid-bits around life in the Shadow Realm, as Hoji takes you on a journey to kill ‘Whisperers’; humanoid beings who appear before each boss and carry something special with them. As I progressed, I became caught up in the narrative: What makes the Nobitsuru Kage so special? What did my employer want with it? Who is Hoji? I can’t tell you anything outside of that because the underlying narrative is as simple as it is compelling and after nearly 13 hours of slaughtering my way through the game, the story slowly unfolded to a poignant ending that surprised a tear from my eye.
Flying Wild Hog are a masterful team of developers with an inspiring vision, and Shadow Warrior is their love-letter to the genre and to gamers. Their last two titles have blazed with bold new ideas, engaging stories, deeply satisfying gameplay and mouth-watering visuals. Shadow Warrior is an intense experience, one that can make long playtimes a challenge, but in bite-size pieces this is hands down the most enjoyable shooter I’ve played in many years and, if this review has sparked anything within you, it’s a game that I encourage you to immediately and gleefully buy.
- You’ve never seen sword and magic gameplay like this before. Never.
- The storyline has considerable girth and a pleasing length (everybody Wang Pun tonight)
- Sumptuous visuals, well-optimised for a wide range of PC setups
- Boss fights are needlessly long and simple
- This marks another two years until Flying Wild Hog release another game
Shadow Warrior is available on Steam for $39.99. The reviewer paid for this copy at their own expense.
Screenshots used in this review taken by the reviewer on their own machine.